But What Do You DO? -by Toby Hanson, PGM, PGP

Toby Hanson, PGM, PGP

A recent conversation at the grocery store got me thinking about how we approach telling others about Odd Fellowship.  All of us as members value our membership and feel like we’ve found something wonderful that we want to share with others.  The challenge usually comes when we start to try and explain what Odd Fellowship is.  Most peoples’ way of communicating about things is fixed on explaining the functionality of something.  What does that new tech gadget do?  What does that new doctor in town do?  What does that new prescription drug do?  Those questions arise naturally, as we all want to know whether something we encounter is going to be useful to us.  That new tech gadget allows me to feed my cat remotely?  That’s very useful to me.  I will buy one.  That new doctor is a podiatrist?  My feet are fine so I won’t need to go see her.  That new drug is for post-nasal drip?  I should ask my doctor about it before the next chili cookoff.

What are they doing in there?

When it comes to explaining Odd Fellowship to people not familiar with fraternalism, it’s a challenge.  The two most common modes of explaining the Order to others are either 1) comparing it to certain *other* fraternal groups (of the apron-wearing persuasion, usually) or 2) talking vaguely about community service and listing off some of our bigger charitable partners or a couple of local lodge activities.  “We volunteer to sweep up the park after the annual Silly String Festival” is not necessarily a compelling reason to join a lodge, though it’s a noble cause.  The compelling reason to join has nothing to do with what we do, but; rather, who we are and what we provide.

Odd Fellowship is one of the oldest systems of mutual aid in Western Civilization that is not connected to any particular religion or ethnicity.  Since arriving in North America in 1819 our Order has been at the foundations of communities as they grew up and developed across the continent.  Within the first thirty years Odd Fellowship had spread from its new cradle in Baltimore all the way across the continent to California.  At that time there were no social services offered by governments and people had to be reliant on mutual aid.  The strength of Odd Fellowship was the bonds it created between those who were willing to contribute to the care and protection of their brothers in times of need.  Although Odd Fellows did do things to benefit the community at large, they were primarily focused on helping each other out.  Benefits to the community were always ancillary to the primary focus of Odd Fellows.

Starting about a hundred years ago, we began dismantling the impressive system of mutual aid which we had assembled in our first century.  As governments increased their social services and more Grand Lodges became wary of underwriting the financial obligations made to members, our system of mutual aid began to atrophy and eventually die off.  By 1940, beneficial membership was basically a relic of the past.  There was still a strong network of lodges in place, and the members at that time valued their membership and the camaraderie it produced, but we lacked the essential thing that attracted people to membership in the first place: the promise that their brothers would be there to assist them in their time of need.  Without that main driver of membership, the long, steady decline of Odd Fellowship began.

Now, a century after the end of beneficial membership, we find ourselves at an interesting place.  Popular culture has started to rediscover fraternalism and more people are asking about Odd Fellowship and where we fit into the panoply of fraternal groups that exists in the popular imagination.  Are we a secret shadow government pulling the strings of world power covertly?  Are we a bunch of jovial, inebriated men who wear unusual hats?  Are we a group of stodgy old men in a dingy hall who meet twice a month to argue about paying bills? (That last one may be true in some cases but don’t share that with prospective members!)  The truth, and the one that we should be sharing, is that we are first and foremost a place that people can come to gain a sense of meaning and belonging.  We make fraternity: we help bring people together in a way that gives them a place where they belong and a sense of being part of something greater than themselves.  Do we also do charitable things?  Absolutely.  Throughout the entirety of Odd Fellowship we have an almost uncountable number of philanthropies like the Wilmer Eye Institute, Arthritis Foundation, Educational Foundation, Living Legacy Program, Pilgrimage For Youth, and others.  Our Grand Lodges have multiple charitable programs and even our local lodges do things in the community.  The thing that happens before any of that, however, is the creation of brotherhood and sisterhood.

One of the aspects of Odd Fellowship I enjoy most is the ability to visit other lodges.  As a traveling professional musician, it has been a huge benefit to me.  Any time I’m in an unfamiliar town and have some unscheduled time, I always look for the Three Links.  If I can find a lodge of some sort I know I will have instant friends, or at least some people with common experience who will be happy to meet me.  I have been very fortunate in my career to have had very warm, hearty welcomes in various Odd Fellows Lodges where I have traveled.  I have never been given anything less than a very warm and hearty welcome and have always been appreciative of being in the company of brothers and sisters.

Another perspective on this idea was provided by a member I recruited for a local lodge.  In discussing what he enjoyed about being an Odd Fellow, he told me that “…the lodge was such a special place.  For somebody that was such an outsider socially to fit in with people that were my polar opposite was beautiful.”  Our charitable work is mighty and laudable but our greatest value is the way we bring disparate people together to form a unified and supportive whole.  In the contemporary world, where so many building blocks of society have become contentious and so many are no longer finding a sense of community where the live or work, our most valuable commodity is fraternity.  We bring different people together to help knit together the web of support that we can all fall back into when we need it.

This brings me back to the very beginning of this article: the question of what it is that we do.  Here’s the answer I would like for everyone to consider giving when that question is posed: we create brotherhood and give people a meaningful place to belong.  We come together twice a month for fellowship and give our members the opportunity to strengthen the bonds of friendship within the lodge which we can then use to improve our communities.  Hopefully, once prospective members understand that our primary focus is brotherhood, they will be curious enough to ask follow-up questions.  That gives us, as members, the opportunity to use some details to fill in about the rich lodge experience.  “Why not come to our Pancake Breakfast next Saturday morning?”  “We’re having a food drive right now.  Stop by the lodge hall before 7pm on Wednesday to drop off your donation.”  “Next Tuesday is our Ice Cream Social.  Come by at 6pm and bring some friends.  We’ll be showing off some of our amazing historical items.”  Once members of the public understand that we start with brotherhood and sisterhood, the rest can follow.

Want to more about the Odd Fellows? Ask Me I May Know!

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